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Salih Mahmoud Osman, a lawyer who has defended and given free legal aid to hundreds of victims of human rights abuses in Darfur, Sudan for the past two decades will receive Human Rights Watch’s highest award on November 7.

Osman, who is from the Darfur region of Sudan, has provided legal representation to those who have been arbitrarily detained and tortured by the Sudanese government, regardless of which ethnic group they are from.

“Salih Mahmoud Osman continues his work as a human rights defender despite great personal risk, in a country which remains hostile to rights activists,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “He has been an essential resource for Darfurians facing abuse by the military, security and police forces, the judiciary, and for the human rights community as we respond to the crisis.”

Since February 2003, in response to a rebel insurgency, the Sudanese government and its allied militias have attacked, killed, raped and looted thousands of civilians mainly from the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups. The Sudanese government’s campaign destroyed hundreds of villages and forcibly displaced some 2 million from their homes. More than 3 million Darfurians – approximately half the population of the region – are now dependent on food aid or other forms of humanitarian assistance.

From the start of the conflict in Darfur, in 2003, Osman worked with an organization called the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT), contesting torture and impunity, and defending people whose only crime is that they oppose government policies or share the same ethnicity as the rebel movements in Darfur.

A member of the Fur ethnic group, Osman was arrested and detained by Sudanese security forces and was not charged or put on trial for seven months in 2004. He went on a hunger strike and was finally released. Since 2006, Salih serves as an opposition member of parliament. In his new role, he works on legal reform and also continues to provide legal aid in Nyala, South Darfur, and in Khartoum, to defend basic civil and political rights.

“In a country governed by the rule of the gun, Salih believes in the rule of law,” said Gagnon. “He is a thorn in the side of those who use violence to cling to power. And for so many of his fellow Darfurians, Salih is a lifeline, in a society that in recent years has had little cause to hope.”

Human Rights Watch said that despite the human rights commitments the Sudanese government has made in the peace process with southern-based rebels, death penalty defendants are routinely denied fair trials, and arbitrary arrests and detentions remain commonplace in Sudan.

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